Police want law to protect informants

LEGISLATION TO protect the status and identities of informants is being sought by chief constables following the collapse of dozens of trials because the police have refused to disclose their intelligence sources.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) says that a 'sea change' in attitudes among judges and defence lawyers caused by miscarriages of justice has led to unacceptable demands for details on informants to be disclosed in pre-trial procedures.

The association said yesterday that prosecutions for major robberies, firearms and drugs offences had been dropped either because of fears that a judge would rule in favour of disclosure of informants' identities or after such a ruling had been made. One senior detective said between 20 and 30 trials in the London area alone had been affected this year.

John Hoddinott, Chief Constable of Hampshire and secretary of ACPO's crime committee, said yesterday: 'We are greatly concerned at what disclosure is doing to our sources of sensitive information. A number of cases have resulted in proceedings being stopped so that we can protect our sources. We are prepared to see prosecutions dropped rather than name informants.'

In the past, Mr Hoddinott said, such information was not sought by defence lawyers, but requests were now almost routine; the courts could no longer be relied upon to rule that the police had public interest immunity over the identities of informants.

Mr Hoddinott said chief constables had received a 'sympathetic response' from the Home Office but now wanted a new law which clarified the status of informants in the criminal justice system and allowed their identities to be preserved.

Chief constables see the issue of informants as the most serious problem arising out of the new pressure upon the police and Crown to disclose all information to defence lawyers. This follows miscarriages of justice, such as the Judith Ward case and a legal ruling in one the Guinness trials. In several miscarriages, it emerged that the police and the Crown had held back information which indicated defendants' innocence.

Barbara Mills QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has issued new guidance suggesting that it is the responsibility of the defence to decide what is relevant to the case. But Mr Hoddinott said chief constables wanted much clearer rules which would oblige the defence to make their requests more specific and save unnecessary work.

He said there were huge costs and resource implications for disclosure. In one large murder case, defence solicitors had asked for access to police data bases which contained the equivalent of 3 million pages of text; special reading facilities had to be set up.

Full disclosure, as it is exists at the moment, involves police handing over all witness statements and forensic reports, but also, on request, all other information such as telephone messages, duty logs and results of house-to- house inquiries. Mr Hoddinott said this could even stretch to third party information - such as the notes of journalists attending a police news conference - and yet none of it might be relevant to the defence eventually mounted.

Mr Hoddinott stressed that police did not contest the duty to disclose. He said: 'The present blanket disclosure is costly and not in the broad interests of justice. We need very firm guidelines which enable an efficient, precise system . . . which follows the spirit of judgments we have seen.'

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